Vast machine plunges into unknown as CERN evades international control, ramps up Large Hadron Collider to 7 TeV collisions
Officials and scientists knowingly mislead public as unanswered critiques accumulate
Appeals to UN and US, German governments rebuffed, CERN beehive mentality rules out response to outside concern
Possible happy outcome: everybody wrong
Look carefully at these faces. Would you entrust your life, and the lives of your children, and the lives of all present and future inhabitants of this planet, to these men and women, without at least a very careful review of what they are up to?
Disregarding the objections of a handful of critics, some very expert, who say it may be the greatest folly of mankind ever constructed, the council of CERN has given the go ahead to the thousands of scientists in charge of the fabulous $9 billion Large Hadron Collider to proceed with collisions at rates of 600 million or more a second at energies matching conditions one billionth of a second after the Big Bang, starting tomorrow, Mar 30, 2010, Tuesday, in the early morning.
If all goes as planned, the scientists running the Geneva based experiment will take all 6.8 billion of their fellow humans on an unprecedented joyride for the rest of this year and next further than ever before into hitherto unknown regions and dimensions of subatomic reality, possibly generating dark matter and hitherto unseen particles including a ‘God particle’ or Higgs boson to win Peter Higgs his Nobel, and/or mini Black Holes and extra dimensions to win Brian Greene his, not to mention supersymmetry and sparticles.
Also in view are local thermonuclear explosions at the rate of one H-Bomb a second, and/or a swarm of micro Black Holes (mBHs) and/or strangelets at the possible expense of the planet, the sun and even, if vacuum bubbles result, the entire universe, according to texts by critics ranging from students of Nostradamus and the Mayan calendar to top ranking theorists from Oxford, Cambridge and the Max Planck Institute of Physics.
What will happen now is unknown
For all these theories the proof is in the pudding, but so far, the record of CERN in putting together the wonderful machine doesn’t argue very convincingly that its work is reliably error free either on the engineering or the theoretical side.
Following the embarrassment of its first attempt at start up in September 2008, when the vast, supposedly excruciatingly carefully designed and finely honed contraption exploded within nine days, the repaired collider with its 27 kilometer circumference tunnel and four underground detectors too large to fit into St Peters Basilica was finally revved up this autumn from November 20 to December 16th to record collision levels of 2.36 TeV (teraelectronvolts), before being shut down for the winter. Unexpected results already appeared in the run in the form of an excess of mesons, particularly kaons, the building blocks of strangelets.
The achievement came after power mysteriously cut off on November 5 during a test and when scientists headed above ground they discovered a bird eating a baguette , a piece of which it had dropped and short circuited a compensating capacitor. Apparently CERN engineers are prone to forget electrical wiring safety measures such as insulation since the delay of over a year from September 2008 was laid to faulty wiring between two of the magnets causing the explosion.
Lest we forget (most reporters on CERN have, it seems), there was also the theoretical miscalculation which caused similar embarrassment and heartbreak for all concerned on March 27 2007, when incorrect mathematics by Fermilab designers led to an explosion in the CERN tunnel, filling it with helium, just as would happen a year or more later after things had supposedly been put right. Apparently the design mistakes had survived multiple reviews:
(TimesOnLine) It appears Fermilab made elementary mistakes in the design of the magnets and their anchors that made them insecure once the system was operational.
Last week an apparently furious and embarrassed Pier Oddone, director of Fermilab, wrote to his staff saying they had caused “a pratfall on the world stage”. He said: “We are dumb-founded that we missed some very simple balance of forces. Not only was it missed in the engineering design but also in the four engineering reviews carried out between 1998 and 2002 before launching the construction of the magnets.”
Dr Lyn Evans, who leads the accelerator construction project at Cern, the European organisation for nuclear research, said the explosion had been potentially very dangerous.
“There was a hell of a bang, the tunnel housing the machine filled with helium and dust and we had to call in the fire brigade to evacuate the place,” he said. “The people working on the test were frightened to death but they were all in a safe place so no-one was hurt.” An investigation by Cern researchers found “fundamental” flaws that caused the explosion, close to the CMS detector, one of the LHC’s most important experiments.
This year after the autumn trial of collisions at a record 1.18 TeV proved out the step by step approach has been abandoned and the proton beams have been running for a week at the new and historically astonishing pace of 3.5 TeV, three times the record level of last autumn, for a collision energy of 7 TeV, and head on collisions of protons start in a few hours. They will run at that level for the remainder of this year and thru 2011, before another year of shut down in 2012, while further upgrading is accomplished to allow beam power to be doubled to 7 TeV.
While the beam energy remains at the high new level of 3.5 teV the collision energy will be much greater towards the end of this year as the potentially much more dangerous ALICE experiment comes on line, for then instead of protons lead nuclei will be whizzing around the course and colliding head on, multiplying the collision energy around 90 times to over 500 TeV! The process demands astonishing accuracy which Steve Myers director for accelerators and technology at CERN compares to aiming needles across the Atlantic to hit each other head on.
That’s what is planned, at least, in line with the fervent hopes and dreams of the 1,700 scientists, engineers, technicians and students from more than 90 US universities and labs funded by the DOE and NSF, not to mention the rest of the 10,000 people from 60 countries who have designed and built the accelerator and its experiments.
Fending off the spoilsports
Critics and alarmists, that is to say, responsible people who worry that the safety reassurances of CERN officials are based on insufficient impartial review and who have discerned that human error may still complicate matters based on the past record are hoping that something else goes wrong, so that outside intervention will finally put a stop to the heedless rush to higher and higher levels of impact.
One reason is that the safety concerns of theorists such as Rainer Plaga (ex group leader at Max Planck Institute of Physics), Adrian Kent of Cambridge, Toby Ord of Oxford, and even Martin Rees (who now publicly cheers on CERN but whose book devotes a whole chapter of doubt to the LHC) have not been answered in any way since CERN safety theorists Giddings and Mangano chose the wrong equation in Plaga’s work to refute in 2008, an embarrassment they have apparently tried to live down with silence.
Meanwhile CERN personnel continue to dismiss serious concerns and reassure the public that the “probability (of global catastrophe) is zero” , which Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker of May 14, 2007 (Annals of Science: Crash Course) revealed to be a knowingly false pr statement ( “Engelen said that CERN officials are now instructed, with respect to the L.H.C.’s world-destroying potential, “not to say that the probability is very small but that the probability is zero.”). Meanwhile physicists everywhere repeat the invalid argument (now generally known as “cosmic ray 1″, and discredited in the CERN 2008 safety report) that the Earth has been subjected to cosmic rays for aeons without discernible problems.
“Give me a crystal ball”
But in fact the scientists and administrators involved also all admit that they have no idea what will, in fact, happen, and have offered no reason why the public should join them in crediting their own theorists’ papers any more than the paper of the ex-Max Planck group leader Rainer Plaga who urges a halt for review.
The truth is that the outcome of this imminent threefold jump in power is wide open, according to CERN director Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer himself at a CERN press conference on November 23, where the kindly looking Heuer informed the world, according to Concerned International, that it all “depends how kind nature is to us. If we would know, then it would be nice but I need a crystal ball in order to predict it…..Give me a glass ball, a crystal ball, then I would know but I don’t know what nature has for us.“
His colleague Verdee (CMS) assured the assembled press stenographers that this was quite right. “We have this standard model. […] So, we have these prejudices which we have just gone through. But nature could have a complete surprise for us and that would be also very interesting. So one should not rule out the fact, we’ve just listed these theory things but nature could have done something different.”
Giotto (ATLAS) added: “Research is called research because we are going to find, to look for something that a priori is not well known. […] This is part of the charm. And I personally will be very happy in fact, I will be very happy to find something that has not been foreseen and that nature in the end is always more simple and more elegant than the speculations of mankind and our theories.”
Indeed, the truth appears to be that no one has any idea what will transpire, which in one way is reassuring, since it suggests that the papers of the best informed critics such as Rainer Plaga are equally likely to be replaced by novelties. The biggest machine ever constructed will take a near light speed shot in the dark, and the result may indeed be a “complete surprise.” It may even be nothing at all, say some.
Nature explains why CERN scientists are so irresponsible
Whether this is a good basis for complacency is a matter for those put at risk to decide, some might argue, but the CERN leadership, such as it is, has decided for us. More specifically, the group think in place at CERN has more or less mesmerized all participants down to the worker bee level in this vast hive to ignore the simple logic of the situation, which is that if no one knows which theory is correct yet, bad things may happen to good people. Caution seems more in order than going at it gangbusters in what appears to be a determined attempt to see if we can achieve the end of the world if we really try our hardest.
CERN as giant beehive
The leaderless beehive thinking at CERN that has given rise to this phenomenon is well sketched in Nature’s current piece on The Large Human Collider, which describes how “Social scientists have embedded themselves at CERN to study the world’s biggest research collaboration. Zeeya Merali reports on a 10,000-person physics project.” Here are some key paragraphs:
Sergio Bertolucci, CERN’s research director, is acutely aware of the importance of cohesive collaboration. “This is an incredible social experiment,” he says, noting that roughly 10,000 physicists around the world are taking part in the LHC experiments and 2,250 of them are employed at CERN. Just reflecting on the size of the collaboration he co-manages makes Bertolucci’s head ache. “Imagine the organization needed when 3,000 people all want to know in advance if they can go home for Christmas,” he says.
Managers at CERN have endured a series of headaches since the LHC powered up in September 2008. A little more than a week after the collider came online, a faulty electrical coupling caused an explosion that brought the project to a halt for 14 months. That setback demoralized the scientists at CERN, particularly the graduate students, who worried about the fate of their degrees, says Roy. A graduate student herself, from the University of California, Berkeley, Roy has been camped out at CERN on and off for three years to observe the “language, taboos and rituals of this exotic community”…..
The arrogance of physicists at CERN, apparent from their behavior, is noted by the visiting sociologists who bear their scorn:
When Knorr Cetina first arrrived, physicists there were working on a smaller collider and their detector teams were less than one-tenth the size of today’s. “In those days 100 people in a team was considered huge,” she says. Knorr Cetina says she was met with friendly bemusement by particle physicists, who were helpful, but thought of a sociologist “as a poor cousin of real scientists”.
That attitude continues today, says Roy. “What can you say? Physicists are professionally contemptuous,” she says.
But judging from what Zeeya Merali writes, it seems that the arrogant physicists might do well to pay attention to the social scientists, as well as vice versa. Her story confirms that the image that many worried people have developed of all these superannuated whiz kids having been given a $9 billion box of matches to play with and liable to light the nearest living room curtain with the sole gleeful purpose of seeing what will happen
What’s especially interesting is the social scientists conclusion that that CERN physicists have been acting as a kind of enormous committee, with subcommittees, but without a real intellectual leader.
Social scientists say they earn the trust of the physicists at CERN by immersing themselves in the culture, just as they would with any other population. Knorr Cetina used this approach to unravel the politics of peacekeeping among the thousands of scientists at the lab.
When she first started, she says, “I expected the same lines of command we know from other complex organizations — industry or government”. But she didn’t find that hierarchy at CERN. Although there are spokespeople who hold positions of authority in the collaboration, there is no top-down decision-making because there are so many highly specialized teams working on different parts of the detector. Knorr Cetina says that at CERN, “the industrial model cannot work. One human simply cannot make technical decisions on such a large scale.
CERN’s unconventional structure stems in part from its history and philosophy. The lab was established on the Swiss–Franco border in 1954 to unite a Europe that had been fractured by war. “It’s a place for global collaboration, where science exists beyond the politics of nationality,” says Bertolucci. But within the lab, the idealism runs into the tensions of conducting actual research. “The paradox is that science is not democratic; we don’t determine who is right by a vote or the majority decision.”
“It’s a cognitive bubble that you can’t escape — that you don’t want to escape.”
If not an industry or a democracy, what is the structure? Knorr Cetina says that CERN functions as a commune, where particle physicists gladly leave their homes and give up their individuality to work for the greater whole. The communal lifestyle is encouraged by the fact that the laboratory stands on its own international territory. “Even the Swiss police cannot come in and grab us,” says Bertolucci. It has its own restaurants, post office, bank and other facilities. “You can live forever within CERN, without ever needing to visit nearby Geneva,” says Knorr Cetina. “It’s a cognitive bubble that you can’t escape — that you don’t want to escape.”
Bertolucci says that this immersion is essential to CERN’s success as a global enterprise. “People coming here from around the world don’t feel like they are visiting someone else’s country, they feel they are coming home.”
“The laboratory does feel like a commune with so many people coming from around the world to work towards a collective goal,” says Kevin Black, a postdoc with the ATLAS collaboration.
Not surprisingly then, this ‘commune in a cognitive bubble’ has difficulty seeing outside its blinkered vision to the real possibility that its theoretical models and its safety reports are untrustworthy, cognitively speaking, at least until reviewed by outsiders.
The schizophrenic group consciousness that on one side acknowledges privately that its theories are just theories and subject to radical revision depending on the outcome of the unprecedented Colossus’s experiments, and on the other side generates the ‘gungho let’s go full steam ahead’ policy is well expressed on a current LHC blog page, where a CERN physicist explains that no one should take physics theories too seriously.:
One our goals here on the US/LHC blog is to clarify a few public misconceptions about physics. One thing that the popular press seems to get consistently wrong is that people are married to their models—by which I mean “plausible, but speculative, frameworks for explaining natural phenomena.” Journalists will often write about a physicist’s pet model by starting with “Professor So-and-So believes that…,” as if Professor So-and-So goes to bed at night thinking of ways to explain to the world why his/her model is right and everyone else is wrong.
That’s not how science is done, not even speculative science. Just because someone spends some time developing a new idea, that doesn’t mean that they are doing so because they think it must be true. This may sound silly: if they don’t think its true, then why devote so much time to it?
All those pursuing the vexed question of the sanity of CERN’s overconfidence can thank the writer for that little gem of enlightenment.
As we noted in our previous post, there are three dangers inherent in the CERN insistence on going full speed ahead despite all the warning signals: strangelets turning the planet into a smoking asteroid the size of a baseball park, a micro black hole swallowing the earth from the core outwards, if not the sun, and/or the generation of a huge amount of energy equivalent to a thermonuclear bomb per second. Now we have learned of another possibility mentioned by Toby Ord of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, “a bubble of ‘true vacuum expanding outward at the speed of light, converting the universe into (a) different state apparently inhospitable for any kind of life (Turner and Wilczek 1982).” There goes the universe.
All these are theoretical dangers, but it seems inarguable they exist at some level of probability above zero, intentionally false assertions from the pr arm of the $900 million annual budget, 2500 employee CERN notwithstanding.
Critics rebuffed, but ConCERNed UN paper remains persuasive
Meanwhile, the series of mishaps so far arising from mistakes in design and construction do nothing to bolster the confidence of skeptics in the 100% competence or thoroughness of CERN scientists and engineers, and like an unleashed Gargantua CERN is taking advantage of the lack of governmental oversight to move ahead, despite actions in US and German courts and an appeal to the UN to halt the process until outside review on behalf of the public at large can be completed.
All of these appeals have been rebuffed, and the critics were forced last week to go to the council of CERN itself, as they met for the last time to authorize CERN to proceed. Since all they were permitted to do was distribute their revised UN complaint text by ConCERNed International to the national representatives at the meeting, they had no apparent response there either.
All literate observers will find it worth reading their document of complaint, Critical Revision of LHC Risks and Communication, which has been shortened from its earlier version but is still 66 pages. It is hard to get through without agreeing with their point, which is sooner or later the rapid climb up ever higher levels of collision energy in colliders must come under review, and there is a very strong case for doing it right now.
But that won’t happen, and so we are all in for an interesting time over the next two years, especially since some of the effects forewarned by the theorists may not be immediately apparent (black hole consumption of the planet may take five or even fifty years, with little apparent effect on the surface). On the other hand if Plaga’s thermonuclear explosions come about at the predicted rate of one a second, it is possible that the entire CERN project and its staff, and large chunks of France and Switzerland near Geneva, will be obliterated in short order, together with modern civilization.
The start up of collisions in a few hours can be followed blow by blow on Twitter at CERN twitter.
UPDATE: Kick off runs into problem. Two posts just now – beam lost! (4am NYC) :
On webcast soon: A. Siemko to explain the cause of the beam loss. http://bit.ly/aQftoi
9 minutes ago via web
It’s all live! New photos: http://bit.ly/dfTGiF http://bit.ly/b5qbSu http://bit.ly/dvYahz – Watch the webcast http://bit.ly/aQftoi
30 minutes ago via web
Experts are still investigating the situation. It looks like the problem is with the machine protection system. We’ll keep you posted
12 minutes ago via web
Beams lost again…operators will need to study the situation now.
37 minutes ago via web
Looks like the critics may be right! They already lost the beams!! But they expect to have them up again and collisions within a couple of hours.
The energy ramp has to happen slowly. It will easily take 30-40 minutes to get to the highest peak.
about 1 hours ago via web
The energy ramp has started – up to 3.5 TeV now!
about 1 hours ago via web
The live webcast has started! Follow it at http://webcast.cern.ch/lhcfirstphysics/
about 1 hours ago via web
Beams are in-operators have set the path to collisions. However, stable beams are needed before attempting the energy ramp again.
about 1 hours ago via web
A new injection of particles into the LHC has just started
about 2 hours ago via web
Operators are discussing the procedure for the new injection and ramp. See http://bit.ly/diGcFS
about 2 hours ago via web
Operators are ramping the energy in the machine without beams. See photo http://bit.ly/9TnMr4
about 3 hours ago via web
We will follow live the first high-energy collisions at the LHC: stay tuned!
about 3 hours ago via web
Hello, this is now Antonella speaking live from the CERN Control Centre
about 3 hours ago via web
Beams in! Optimising the beams before ramping < - Ramping means increasing the energy - This takes time...
about 4 hours ago via web
All lights are green. Injection of beams into the #LHC is being prepared.
about 4 hours ago via web
Live from the CERN Control Center - Arnaud is speaking. First attempt for collisions may take time. We will keep you up to date...
about 5 hours ago via web
Good morning. #LHC spent a good night with two stable beams at 3,5 TeV each. Next fill for collisions!
about 5 hours ago via web
#LHC is ready for first attempt at 7 TeV collisions tomorrow morning
about 14 hours ago via web
LIVE WEBCASTS are at LHC First Physics
Watch the cranking up of the 21st Century’s greatest marvel in a party atmosphere where scientists explain what is going on to Italian accented female TV reporter, and see how confident they are that their lost beam will be up and running again in a short while, and how atrocious the French accent of the English scientist who explains that is.